Father Time Catches Up With Everyone

6 Mar

      Just did an interview with Ray Longo, the renowned trainer of UFC champions Matt Serra and Chris Weidman. If you want to see what he had to say, you’ll have to read the full story in a future issue of Black Belt Magazine. But our conversation got me thinking about Weidman’s two defeats of Anderson Silva last year.
      One thing that strikes me is just how shocked most people were that Silva, the greatest champion in the history of mixed martial arts, suddenly seemed to have deteriorated into an ordinary fighter. All sorts of explanations have been put forth, from Weidman merely getting “lucky” to Silva suffering from overconfidence. But the one explanation you don’t hear much of is the simple – and most likely true – one, Silva got old.
      Even now, that seems a fantastical and unbelievable explanation to many MMA fans who have been conditioned to seeing modern fighters compete at a championship level well into their 40s. Silva, after all, is only 38. Is that really all that old for a fighter? Well, yes it is.
      In the last 25 years, first in boxing then in MMA, we’ve seen a growing number of athletes who have fought at a very high level into their 40s and this has come to seem like the norm to us. But what people tend to forget is, this last 25 years also corresponds with the rise of performance enhancing drugs as being pretty much commonplace among world class athletes in most sports, including boxing and MMA. While better training techniques may have had something to do with the unusual longevity possessed by fighters of the past quarter century, it would be naive to think that was the only factor enabling them to continue competing successfully well past what was always considered a fighter’s prime – usually in his mid to late 20s, maybe extending into his early 30s for a fighter in the heavier weight classes.
      If you look at boxing, a sport with a much longer history than modern MMA, yet just as good a barometer for the natural life span of a professional athlete, you’ll see up until the past 25 years, nearly every great pugilist was done for as a championship fighter by their late 30s. In the history of modern boxing, from the dawn of the Marquess of Queensberry rules about 125 years ago up to the past 25 years, the legendary light heavyweight champion Archie Moore is virtually the only fighter who competed at a championship level into his 40s. Almost everyone else was pretty much finished by their early to mid 30s. Sugar Ray Robinson, generally regarded as the greatest pound-for-pound boxer in the history of the sport, won his last championship fight at age 36 and never won another title match after that. Muhammad Ali, arguably the greatest heavyweight of all time, won his last title fight at 36 and, even then, was a mere shadow of himself beating a comparatively novice and only moderately talented Leon Spinks.
      Now one might argue that the majority of top flight boxers start competing at a younger age than most mixed martial artists and take more punishment so that is why their careers end more quickly. But that doesn’t really explain why a number of them, like mixed martial artists, have suddenly found a fountain of youth and been able to continue competing successfully past age 40 in recent years. Unless you consider the possibility some of these boxers, just as with some of the elder statesman of MMA, have been taking performance enhancing substances which enable them to continue training and competing like younger men…
      It might seem as if this argument is based on the presumption that Anderson Silva has never taken performance enhancing drugs, himself, while most of his elder contemporaries have. This is not necessarily the case.
      While it’s a well-known fact that a number of MMA’s more senior citizens have taken certain performance enhancing substances like testosterone replacement therapy – a controversial treatment that is considered a “legal” drug with a doctor’s prescription – I have no knowledge of whether Silva has ever taken or not taken any performance enhancing substances over the course of his career. But in his specific case, it may not really matter when it comes to prolonging a career.
      The thing to remember is that performance enhancing drugs will only enhance certain aspects of an athlete’s abilities – primarily their ability to train long and hard in order to increase (or at least maintain) their physical strength and endurance. What they will not do is enhance an athlete’s reflexes and quickness. Those remain, essentially, in the province of youth.
      When you look at the fighters who have competed successfully into their 40s, they are frequently athletes whose games have relied on some combination of strength, endurance and sheer guile to continue winning fights. Those who have relied upon superior speed, reflexes, quickness and agility have always been done at a relatively early age. Even Ali, the “greatest of all time” couldn’t continue at the top level past age 36. Despite his experience and intelligence in the ring, his ability to adjust his style with age, once those magnificent reflexes faded significantly, he was largely finished.
      It is, perhaps, telling that the boxer Silva admired and compared himself to the most – whom he even wanted to fight in a boxing match at one point – was Roy Jones Jr. Like Silva, Jones was a phenom who dominated elite boxers from 160 pounds all the way up to heavyweight with his incredible speed and inhuman reflexes. He could strike opponents with lightning blows seemingly at will and, in turn, almost no one could hit him. Then he abruptly started to look ordinary at age 34. His reflexes, which had enabled him to slip punches by an inch whenever he wanted, had slowed just enough that that one inch margin faded and he was getting hit – and knocked out – by punches he once easily eluded.
      For a fighter like Jones – or Silva – no amount of training, no performance enhancing drugs, no anything is going to recover the lost quickness of youth. Once those reflexes go for a fighter whose career has been built on them, that’s it. They are finished as great fighters even when they don’t break their legs.
      This isn’t to downgrade Chris Weidman’s two victories over Silva. Who’s to say he wouldn’t have beaten the Anderson Silva of 5 years ago? But great fighters rarely meet when both are at their peaks. Usually one is on the upside of their career and the other on the downside. It’s possible we haven’t even seen the best of Chris Weidman yet. And it’s also possible that when he is beaten one day, he will be on the downside and the loss will occur against some youngster on the ascendancy. That is the natural order of the fight game. And people should realize that when trying to understand how a once great fighter like Anderson Silva suddenly looks so mediocre at the “young” age of 38.

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